Technologically Advanced: How Tech Adoption Helps SMB Owners Get Ahead
Technologically Advanced: How Tech Adoption Helps SMB Owners Get Ahead

Thom Foss has taken the leap many of us only dream about when he left the corporate world and opened his own brewery six years ago with his brother, Dane. At Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, Thom has leveraged his years of corporate work to serve as general manager and co-founder of the brewery.

Q: What devices do you use daily?

A: Like most entrepreneurs, Thom uses several devices to help him run his business. In Thom's case, he relies on a Windows desktop machine and his Android phone.

Q: What technology do you use to get ahead of your competition?

A: "It might sound trite, but search engines and social media," Thom responds. He uses search engines for research and information on both business enhancements, like operational efficiencies and process improvements, and brewing ideas and recipes. Social media is important because Thom can go beyond advertising. "(We) are actively using multiple social media outlets to engage with our audience, not just advertise at them," said Thom.

Q: Is technology a significant enabler for your business?

A: Technology helps Burning Brothers in several ways. "It really helps level the playing field against our larger competitors," Thom states. "We can more easily monitor and measure multiple aspects of business performance." Technology also enables communication for the business, making it easy and quick for Thom and his team to respond to changes and communicate to all involved. Leveraging technology also allows for the automation of some tasks, making sure that tasks are completed correctly and consistently.

Q: Has social media influenced your business at all, from internal employee policies to how you promote your company?

A: Social media hasn't presented challenges to Thom and the brewery from a policy standpoint, but it's been a big influence when it comes to promoting the brand. But social media promotion isn't without its problems. "Our biggest challenge with social media," Thom explains, "is the sheer number of channels and outlets available and the near constant change that is happening in each. Keeping up with everything is a constant struggle when balancing it against other business priorities."

Q: Have you had to adapt your business because of security concerns brought about by the increased use of technology?

A: Business concerns around IT security haven't been a significant factor yet for Burning Brothers Brewing. "Since we haven't delved into the e-commerce realm, we haven't really opened the door too much with collecting user information," Thom explains. However, he does take precautions with security when it comes to credit card payments onsite in the taproom. To address concerns around payment processing security, Thom says, "We make sure that we stay current with our hardware and software and train our staff in proper card-handling procedures."

7 Free Digital Marketing Tools for Small Businesses

Before the World Wide Web, marketing was challenging. You had to rely on TV, radio or print to get the word out about your company. Now, digital marketing has taken over. Advertising has blown up in a big way, and there is an overwhelming amount of marketing content out there.

It's your job as a business owner to cut through the noise of other advertisements and create eye-catching digital marketing. We've determined seven of the top free marketing tools you can start using today to make your small business boom.

1. WordPress

If you need a content management system (CMS) for your digital marketing, look no further than WordPress.

The options are nearly limitless with WordPress. You can create your website from scratch using the intuitive drag-and-drop system. The folks at WordPress make it easy to build a website with a storefront, add detailed information about your company and vision, and even include a full-fledged blog so you can market with high-quality content and SEO keywords.


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Perhaps the best part of WordPress is the tens of thousands of plugins you can add to your page. Plugins have a wide range of features, including monitoring analytics, customizing your theme, adding a contact form and much, much more.

2. Canva

Online ads are now the norm for most people. Looking for help developing your newest ad campaign with images? Canva can help you build amazing ads with its easy-to-use yet feature-rich image creator. However, Canva can do so much more than just create ads. You can use it to develop images for your social media pages, your website and more. You can even compile and import important data and use it to build custom charts. If you can dream it, you can create it.

3. Google Search Console

The way your website ranks on Google is vital to your success. You want to always make it to the first page, ideally near the top. Luckily, free tools can steer you in the right direction. Google Search Console, formally Google Webmaster Tools, is an application that helps website owners determine the rank of their website. Once you link your account to the search console, you can track your keywords and page views. Use this information to learn when and how to market your page for even more views.

You can also use this tool to find errors that are holding your site back. The console will not only point out the errors to you but help you fix them. This is a must-have freebie for all small business owners.

4. Ubersuggest

Part of your marketing plan should involve targeting SEO keywords that relate to your niche. Keywords are important because they allow you to reach a specific target or people with a specific need. Essentially, the goal is that when people type the keywords you pick into Google, your website pops up near the top of the list. For example, if your website sells pet supplies, you may want to target "best treats for cats" in your blog posts.

Ubersuggest allows you to enter one keyword or phrase, and it will give you a bunch of words that you can use in your blog posts. This free tool can also help you learn more about SEO and how it relates to your marketing plan. It's certainly worth your time if you're new to digital marketing.

5. Help a Reporter Out (HARO)

Besides having good keywords, you have to deliver quality content if you want a strong, reputable digital marketing presence. Sometimes it can be hard to write high-quality content if you don't know where to look. Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is a free application that allows bloggers to link up with sources to deliver trustworthy content with reputable sources. You simply sign up, look for sources that have information relating to your niche, and get writing! You always want to make sure the topic you choose will interest your audience, but having a solid source is a great start.

6. Mailchimp

There's no question that one of the most important parts of your digital marketing plan is your sales emails. You need a reliable free tool that can help you reach more people and get conversions. All of your bases are covered when you use Mailchimp for your email marketing. You can create eye-catching, informative ads that go out to your mailing list in a matter of seconds.

Many people love the fact that you can create a wide variety of email types aside from simple marketing letters. It's possible to send customized welcome letters, "abandoned cart" reminders, product recommendations and more.

7. Hootsuite

Finally, you have to cover your social media presence. Hootsuite is designed to keep track of all of your social media pages in one place. You can go through and schedule upcoming posts, including articles and marketing posts, making it easier than ever to reach out to your audience. Hootsuite also allows you to track both competitors and influencers in your niche.

The intuitive layout gives you easy access to all of your profiles and the people you wish to track. You can stay up to date on influencer information, see what your competitors are up to, and ensure that you'll never have a post go out late again.


There's a wide range of tools out there to help you develop a killer digital marketing strategy. We've introduced you to some of the best here. Use this information and these resources to start building up your marketing. Always consider your company's niche, how your audience likes to communicate and what you can do to reach the most people. It may take some time to get the marketing ball rolling, but once you get some folks interested, you're on a straight path to success. Keep your head up, keep pushing, and keep marketing!

Kamyar Shah
22 Entrepreneurs Debate if You Can Learn to be an Entrepreneur

It’s all about the unwillingness to give up

There is no single path to entrepreneurship; some are born that way, others are made. The nature vs. nurture discussion is pointless. Much like anything else in life everyone’s path is unique because everyone journey is unique. The one common factor though is the unwillingness to give up; most entrepreneurs are not successful by the first attempt. That unwillingness to give up is what leads to success.
Thanks to Kamyar Shah
Originally published at
MIT Sloan Management Review
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The name is a charming legacy anachronism: These days, most of the gifting brand’s customers don’t dial a phone number, and a clear majority order more than bouquets. In fact, the now 40-plus-year-old parent, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc., is today primarily an e-commerce business whose revenue, since its acquisitions of brands such as Harry & David, Cheryl’s Cookies, Wolferman’s, and The Popcorn Factory, comes largely from food-related gifts.

Its floral origins notwithstanding, the company has been on the cutting edge when it comes to using machine learning (ML) to enhance customer experience. Since 2016, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc. has launched several noteworthy marketing innovations to enhance the customer experience. Partnering with IBM Watson, the company introduced the AI-powered personal gift concierge GWYN (Gifts When You Need) to customize suggestions to online shoppers. In addition, customers can order gifts via chatbots and voice.

The research and analysis for this report was conducted under the direction of the authors as part of an MIT Sloan Management Review research initiative, sponsored by Google, in collaboration with Think with Google.

Amit Shah, CMO of, is committed to furthering machine learning in the organization. While ML technologies are still in the nascent stage at the company, the innovative uses of ML are already “training the muscle memory of the organization very deeply,” Shah says. “I think what we will find, five years down the road, is that the people who took the early bets in artificial intelligence actually achieve the learning that cannot be copied. I don’t think you can short-circuit your way the way you can with other channels.”

Shah is hardly unique among innovative retail marketers in taking ML seriously. Research conducted for our global executive study of strategic measurement, “Leading With Next-Generation Key Performance Indicators,”1 reveals that retail executives believe that ML can improve their KPI outcomes and they are investing in the technology for marketing at high levels. Notably, even those retail executives who don’t believe strongly in the importance of ML report investments in the technology at relatively high rates. They are evidently aware that there are strategic risks to falling behind the competition.

About the Research

This report explores some of the key findings from the authors’ 2018 research study of KPIs and machine learning in today’s corporate landscape. The research, which involved a survey of 4,700 executives and managers (more than 1,600 in marketing) and interviews with more than a dozen corporate leaders and academics, has far-reaching implications for modern businesses. We focused our analysis for this industry brief on 653 marketing executives in the retail industry.

The study strongly suggests that data-driven organizations that align incentives, KPIs, and machine-learning capabilities have distinct advantages over those that move too slowly to develop their data capabilities. For business leaders serious about succeeding in digital market environments, these shifts offer a clear and urgent call to action.

Machine learning is an artificial intelligence discipline geared toward the technological development of human knowledge. Machine learning allows computers to handle new situations via analysis, self-training, observation, and experience.i

Adoption of Machine Learning in the Retail Industry

We surveyed 1,600 senior North American marketing executives and managers about their use of KPIs and the role of ML in their marketing activities; 653 were from the retail sector. Of these retail marketing executives, 72% believe that their current functional KPIs can be better achieved with greater investment in automation and ML technologies. In the overall sample, a similar percentage of respondents (74%) said the same thing. Sixty-two percent of retail executives said their organization has incentives or internal functional KPIs to use automation and ML technologies to drive marketing activities. In the overall sample, that number was lower: Only 49% of respondents reported having such incentives. Finally, 72% of retail executives said that their organization is investing in new skills or training in 2018 to make marketing more effective in using automation and machine learning. In the overall sample, 63% reported such investments. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Machine Learning Across Industries: Belief, Investment, and Incentives

Clearly, many marketers in the retail industry, a sector greatly disrupted by digital media, mobile devices, and platform technologies, are actively investing in ML. Despite their overall commitment to ML, however, some retail marketers are far more likely to invest in ML than others. Specifically, organizations more advanced in KPI usage and alignment are more likely to use ML in marketing.

Measurement Leaders Pull Ahead

Our study grouped all survey respondents into three categories — Measurement Leaders, Measurement Capable, and Measurement Challenged — based on the level of sophistication with which they use KPIs to guide their organization. Survey respondents from the retail sector skewed toward the more sophisticated range of our maturity index. They had more Measurement Leaders (29%) than the overall sample (20%) and fewer Measurement Challenged (12%) than the overall sample (20%). The numbers of Measurement Capable were roughly equivalent. Measurement Leaders look to KPIs to help them lead and to find new growth opportunities for their companies, and the retail sector’s Measurement Leaders are far more likely than other retail organizations to be heavily invested in machine learning.

Measurement Leaders in retail strongly believe in machine learning’s potential to help achieve KPI outcomes. Consequently, they provide investment and incentives to make good on their belief. Asked whether their current functional KPIs could be better achieved with greater investment in automation and ML technologies, an overwhelming majority of Measurement Leaders — 90% — said yes. (See Figure 2.)

When asked whether their organization was investing in new skills or training in 2018 to make marketing more effective in using automation and machine learning, 90% again answered in the affirmative. When asked whether their organization had incentives or internal functional KPIs to use more automation and ML technologies to drive marketing activities, 88% said yes. In essence, the Measurement Leaders in retail have almost completely aligned their levels of ML investment and incentives in marketing.

Figure 2: Measurement Leaders Align ML Investments and Incentives

Machine Learning for Competitive Advantage

In the retail sector, top competitors like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Home Depot clearly and publicly rely on data, analytics, and machine learning to create their market edge. As a result, ML is fast becoming a commonly used tool among retail marketers. Companies not yet exploiting ML technologies risk being left behind. Two actionable steps follow from this research:

Make ongoing investments in machine-learning capabilities. These investments take various forms depending on enterprise goals. For instance, one emerging KPI shared by several CMOs involves turning customers into brand advocates. “One of the best assets that you can have for a brand is to have a number of people who are excited loyalists and advocates for that brand,” notes Laura Beaudin, partner and global marketing lead at management consulting firm Bain & Co. ML’s ability to analyze social media posts and shopper marketing behaviors creates unique capabilities for identifying which shoppers might wield the most profitable online influence and which social media influencers should be part of a retailer’s targeted outreach. Influences on influencers are not fixed. ML technologies are not static, either. Consider making investments in ML training an ongoing process that familiarizes marketers with ML technology basics, new developments, as well as what data sets are (and could be made) available to the marketing team.

Move beyond investment to incentives. Investing in ML is not enough; it must be matched by incentives to use the technology. With ML’s broader use, new metrics emerge and assume primacy. These metrics can be tied directly to the achievement of specific strategic goals. Clear communication about the value of ML applications to these broader organizational goals is essential to advancing the development and effectiveness of ML capabilities. This is especially true in those companies where ML adoption is in the early stages. Incentives to use ML can be invaluable in creating new efficiencies and improving organizational learning.

For more on the opportunities presented by machine learning, see our recent report “Improving Strategic Execution With Machine Learning.”

Shah of notes, “All of our AI efforts are helping us learn about our customers, learn about ourselves, and ultimately learn about how we leverage technology.” From inventory management and staff scheduling to timed and targeted promotions, retail executives will increasingly delegate decisions to data-driven automated algorithms with the capacity to learn.

“Where the rub is,” says Simon Atkins, North America senior vice president and brand director for Adidas America, “is the ability for our brand team to upskill and understand e-commerce’s core KPIs and for the e-commerce team to understand the brand’s core KPIs around sentiment, brand attributes, and sell-through, and to marry both of those in a single view that then sets a strategy and very particular tactics in order to execute. I’d say we’re at the starting point of digging much deeper into those KPIs.”

ML innovations, widely regarded as a reliable path for extracting value from massive data volumes, are already remaking the retail sector. Mobile shopping apps married to ML algorithms are already used to improve recommendations and boost loyalty; latent factor analysis helps retailers better segment their customers and identify possible social media influencers. It is little surprise, then, that our survey finds retailers investing in ML for marketing at higher levels than other industries. Indeed, even retail’s ML pessimists say their companies are investing heavily in the technology. Whether they invest to innovate or simply to stay afloat, retail marketers are aware that companies that neglect machine learning do so at their peril. The risk of not embracing machine learning now outweighs the pain of committing to it.
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We recently conducted an in-depth study at Lumere to gain insight into physicians’ perceptions of clinical variation and the factors influencing their choices of drugs and devices. Based on a survey of 276 physicians, our study results show that it’s necessary to consistently and frequently share cost data and clinical evidence with physicians, regardless of whether they’re affiliated with or directly employed by a hospital. This empowers physicians to support the quality and cost goals inherent in a health system’s value-based care model. Below, we offer three recommendations for health systems looking to do this.

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Assess how data is shared with physicians. The reality is that in most health systems, data sharing occurs in irregular intervals and inconsistent formats. Ninety-one percent of respondents to our survey reported that increasing physician access to cost data would have a positive impact on care quality. However, only 40% said that their health systems are working to increase physician access to such data.

While working directly with health systems to reduce clinical variation, Lumere has discovered firsthand that the manner and type of cost and evidence-based data shared with physicians varies dramatically. While some organizations have made great strides in developing robust mechanisms for sharing data, many do little beyond circulating the most basic data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ patient-satisfaction survey (the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, or HCAHPS).

There are multiple explanations as to why health system administrators have been slow to share data with physicians. The two most common challenges are difficulty obtaining accurate, clinically meaningful data and lack of knowledge among administrators about communicating data.

When it comes to obtaining accurate, meaningful data, the reality is that many health systems do not know where to start. Between disparate data-collection systems, varied physician needs, and an overwhelming array of available clinical evidence, it can be daunting to try to develop a robust, yet streamlined, approach.

As for the second problem, many administrators have simply not been trained to effectively communicate data. Health system leaders tend to be more comfortable talking about costs, but physicians generally focus on clinical outcomes. As a result, physicians frequently have follow-up questions that administrators interpret as pushback. It is important to understand what physicians need.

Determine the appropriate amount and type of data to share. Using evidence and data can foster respectful debate, provide honest education, and ultimately align teams.

Physicians are driven by their desire to improve patient outcomes and therefore want the total picture. This includes access to published evidence to help choose cost-effective drug and device alternatives without hurting outcomes. Health system administrators need to provide clinicians with access to a wide range of data (not only data about costs). Ensuring that physicians have a strong voice in determining which data to share will help create alignment and trust. A more nuanced value-based approach that accounts for important clinical and patient-centered outcomes (e.g., length of stay, post-operative recovery profile) combined with cost data may be the most effective solution.

While physicians generally report wanting more cost data, not all physicians have the experience and training to appropriately incorporate it into their decision making. Surveyed physicians who have had exposure to a range of cost data, data highlighting clinical variation, and practice guidelines generally found cost data more influential in their selection of drugs and devices, regardless of whether they shared in savings under value-based care models. This was particularly true for more veteran physicians and those with private-practice experience who have had greater exposure to managing cost information.

Health systems can play a key role in helping physicians use cost and quality data to make cost-effective decisions. We recommend that health systems identify a centralized data/analytics department that includes representatives of both quality-improvement teams and technology/informatics to own the process of streamlining, analyzing, and disseminating data.

Compare data based on contemporary evidence-based guidelines. Physicians would like to incorporate reliable data into their decision-making when selecting drugs and devices. In our survey, 54% of respondents reported that it was either “extremely important” or “very important” that hospitals use peer-reviewed literature and clinical evidence to support the selection of medical devices. Further, 56% of respondents said it was “extremely important” or “very important” that physicians be involved in using data to develop clinical protocols, guidelines, and best practices.

Health systems should ensure that data is organized and presented in a way that is clinically meaningful and emphasizes high-quality patient care. Beginning the dialogue with physicians by asking them to reduce costs does not always inspire collaboration. To get physicians more involved, analyze cost drivers within the clinical context.

Finally, health systems should keep data and communication simple by developing, communicating, and mobilizing a small number of critical key performance indicators (KPIs). These indicators should reflect the voices of health care customers, including patients, care providers, and payers. In some instances, these will overlap — for example, length of stay, infection rates, readmissions, and likelihood to recommend the provider in the future. Consistent, relevant benchmarks will keep physicians focused on organizational goals.

Our survey results paint a vivid picture: Health systems openly and transparently engage with both employed and affiliated physicians and foster a culture that appreciates data and analytics. Only then will we see improved clinical, operational, and financial outcomes.

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CEO activism, the growing trend of top executives speaking out on sensitive social and political issues, has been labeled the “new normal.” But behind the scenes, executives do not feel in control. They are struggling to anticipate and respond to intensifying pressure from the public, investors, and — above all — their employees.

There are conflicting views of how CEOs should proceed. One survey suggests the public wants chief executives to lead on social change without waiting for the government to act. A separate survey shows public support for corporate engagement on such issues as sexual harassment and equal pay — though not on gun control or abortion. A third survey indicates that brands may be punished for even mentioning President Donald Trump, regardless of whether they are being critical or complimentary.

Companies we work with at BSR, a nonprofit sustainability business network and consultancy, feel trapped: Although every conceivable action carries considerable risk, inaction may not be much of an option, either.

What to do, now that the neutral middle ground has become a quicksand? We have been working with businesses to develop a strategic framework for when to take a stand on social issues. It draws on the work of R. Edward Freeman and others regarding stakeholder theory, which offers a way of examining the interests of all groups affected by an organization — not just shareholders but also customers, employees, governments, suppliers, and communities. We started by studying how distinct stakeholder groups view our corporate clients’ positions on social issues. Here is what we learned.

Companies must consider values, not just shared value. Most companies prefer to prioritize their business interests in line with both fiduciary duty and the shared value approach to corporate responsibility, which connects business success with social good. This would suggest that companies should act only when there is a clear business case and an opportunity for direct action. For example, most would assume that it’s easier and more effective for the CEO to cut a company’s climate emissions than to take a stand on immigration. A CEO could be forgiven for thinking it’s safest to only weigh in on political issues that affect operational and strategic goals, industry dynamics, or a company’s regulatory and policy landscape.

But a company’s exposure to a political issue is also determined by its values. Values are determined by the company’s culture, mission, and voluntary commitments, along with the opinions and beliefs of a range of actors — not just customers but also employees, business partners, and civil society organizations.

We were surprised to find that when business interests and values conflict, values are the dominant variable. That’s why, although focusing on core interests may seem sensible, reality shows it to be untenable. Tech companies, for example, had little to gain strategically by opposing the Trump administration’s family separation policy. But Microsoft and Google found it impossible to remain silent in the face of employee demands for a response to what staff regarded as an assault on company values. The same dynamic may now complicate Google’s plans to re-enter China’s search market. Employee pressure can even drive significant turnover in senior leadership ranks, as happened recently at Nike, which earlier this year was sued for sexual discrimination by several former employees.

Employees are now a company’s most powerful interest group. In many ways, corporate power seems to be high: Companies prioritize shareholder value; union membership rates are at an all-time low; employment contracts for some jobs include nondisclosure clauses as standard features; certain sectors of the workforce are moving toward gig economy jobs with diminishing hourly rates and no health care; other sectors are facing unemployment as jobs are automated. So why are leaders responding so readily when employees pressure them to demonstrate integrity? Workers are freely using the tools of this hyper-transparent era — including petitions and email leaks — to land punishing blows against corporate reputations and finances, in the process emerging as companies’ most powerful interest group. At a time when the U.S. economy seems to be approaching full employment, employees have more influence over whether and how their leaders speak out.

Polarization heightens risk. Companies seem to face the greatest peril when an issue is politically polarizing to customers and has more to do with values than with long-term financial consequences. On Jan. 28, 2017, Uber cut congestion pricing to John F. Kennedy International Airport while New York taxi drivers were protesting President Trump’s new immigration policy; although the move was a financial one on Uber’s part, it was perceived as aligning the company with the “Muslim ban,” leading to the #deleteUber hashtag and to hundreds of thousands of riders deleting their accounts. Keurig faced complaints when it pulled advertising from Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Delta drew outrage and lost tax breaks when it decided to end a travel discount for the National Rifle Association. Still, Target, after undergoing boycotts and petition drives for implementing a transgender bathroom policy in its stores, said it had suffered no material financial impact.

Companies certainly have tools to parse the views of their customers, but fretting over who is yelling the loudest on Twitter does not offer a firm ground for action. Basing decisions on corporate principles and employee values is a better approach than trying to navigate what is likely to be a broad spectrum of customer sentiment.

Your rhetoric has to be aligned with your dollars. Companies face heightened scrutiny over influence-peddling and corruption, which makes it much harder to decouple public rhetoric and private lobbying efforts. The Center for Political Accountability has called out companies on a range of issues, including contraceptive makers that indirectly fund political officials who aim to limit women’s reproductive rights. C-suite hypocrisy is now a media focus, with funding for business associations a particularly vulnerable flank. Climate activists have long highlighted the gap between the oil and gas sector’s softening rhetoric on climate change and the corporate funding for its trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, which has opposed numerous climate change policies.

Opportunities for direct action may be constrained. Companies are not governments, and their customers are not the electorate. So even when they want to take action, there are concrete limits on what businesses can achieve. Companies can accept or decline business, and they can tackle such issues as diversity and climate change in their own operations, but on pure policy matters like trade or immigration, there’s only so much they can do.

Companies know this well, but they struggle to communicate the limits of their ability to drive systemic social change, which leaves them at risk of raising expectations they cannot fulfill. For example, an incident of discrimination by staff at a Starbucks in Philadelphia led to public outcry against the company, which soon stood accused of helping foster gentrification and systemic racism in the U.S. This was a discouraging development, given that the organization has long mounted efforts to drive collaborative action on race and immigration issues, including a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees.

So the paradoxes multiply. While pressure to enhance shareholder value has not relented, companies are listening intently as they try to balance the needs and demands of a broad range of stakeholders. At the same time, powerful sections of the investment community are amplifying demands that companies move beyond empty posturing to better manage their social, political, and environmental efforts. Amid all the fuss, key shareholders seem to be concluding that prioritizing only profits may be neither smart nor sustainable. Behind the roiling divisions on specific issues, a consensus is emerging among markets, employees, and the public: Companies must fundamentally rethink their interactions with society.

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